From a 1909 poem to 1990s UK garage, the rapper and actor tells us what influenced his new ‘break-up’ album
On his new album The Long Goodbye, Riz Ahmed explores the aftermath of a break-up. This isn’t a regular collection of heartbreak songs, though. “The record is a breakup album – but with your country,” Riz says. “So many of us feel like we’re being dumped by the place we call home, a home that we built. This album takes you on the journey of this breakup; through the stages of denial, anger, acceptance, and finally self-love to counter the hate.”
Although a lot of people today will know Riz Ahmed for his acting roles – in Venom, Girls, Star Wars: Rogue One, Four Lions, and more – the British-Asian artist been releasing rap music since the mid-2000s, both under his former alias Riz MC and as part of the Swet Shop Boys with Heems. The Long Goodbye was produced with Redinho, who previously worked with the rapper and actor on the Swet Shop Boys album Cashmere in 2016, and who brings Riz Ahmed’s words to life with explosive beats drawing on South Asian instrumentation and harmonics.
Accompanying the album is a short film that bridges Riz’s worlds as an actor and as a musician. Directed by Aneil Karia and made in collaboration with WeTransfer’s WePresent platform, the film – also titled The Long Goodbye – looks at what may lie ahead for the world in a fractured time.
Following The Long Goodbye’s release today, we hopped on the phone with Riz Ahmed to talk about some of the album’s inspirations.
Toba Tek Singh, a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto
Riz Ahmed: Toba Tek Singh is a place in Pakistan. The short story is about an asylum for the mentally ill, set in the year in which the Partition of India and Pakistan has taken place. The people who run the asylum are trying to work out whether the inmates go to India or Pakistan. It’s a metaphor for the lunacy and the violence and the absurdity of Partition. One particular inmate refuses to choose sides between India and Pakistan and stands his ground in a no man’s land.
‘No man’s land’ is an important concept for me, one that I keep returning to in my work. I’m trying to take this no man’s land that people like me and so many more occupy in the world right now – people who can’t easily label their identities in one clear way, people who maybe don’t belong to either east or west, left or right – and make it habitable.
That short story is really inspiring, because there’s this one person who says that the easy option is to pick a side, but has refused. It’s important to consider that maybe no man’s land isn’t no man’s land. Maybe it’s ours, because there are so many of us there. The second track on the album is called “Toba Tek Singh”.
The album is the story of this break-up between me and the country I call home, something that, sadly, I think a lot of people can relate to. On the track, I’m being cast out of my country and out of this relationship that forced me to make my home a no man’s land.
Shikwa, a poem by Allama Muhammad Iqbal
Riz Ahmed: Allama Muhammad Iqbal was a philosopher and a poet. This poem Shikwa is basically a complaint to God, saying, “Hey God, look at the state of your people right now. Muslims everywhere in the world are being oppressed and in a really tough situation. What did we do to deserve this?” And God says, “Well, you know what, you lost your way, man. You lost connection with who you really are, the core heart of yourself.” It’s a very famous poem, and I guess, now, in the current context of world events, it’s a timeless one, even though it was written a very specific time and place (it was first recited in 1909 at a poetry gathering in Lahore). The opening track of The Long Goodbye is called “The Breakup”, but an alternative title for it is “Shikwa”, because it’s my complaint to my country – to my homeland, Britain. It’s really lodging my complaints and pleading with her not to end this relationship, or to conduct it differently than the toxic way it’s being conducted today.
Riz Ahmed: Hassan Hajjaj shot the album cover and a lot of the images for the album. Like me, he’s a British Muslim artist who refuses to be defined by our political realities, or our resistance to those political realities, and he celebrates his identity in a colorful way. He celebrates the aesthetic and influences of his home country, Morocco, and brings that east London swag to it.
He’s someone who has in recent years connected with me and we’ve become friends. I messaged him on Instagram and said “I love what you do.” He said, “Come over sometime.” I was in America, but when I came back to England, I went straight to his studio and we talked for hours and hours and hours. We would go to his place and hang out and drink tea on the street. I think what’s interesting in Hassan’s work is that he has this highly romantic, colorful energy about it, which this album also has, while still being quite defined and confrontational and charged.
I really love that album artwork. If you look at it, it says everything. It’s taking references like rose petals, which is a very traditional motif in eastern art, but they’re plastic flowers bought from ASDA. It’s taking the geometric tessellation of tiling artwork and stuff that you had in Iran, and putting it on a second-hand suit. It epitomises that shabby-chic – or as I call it, ‘Mogul Mowgli’ – aesthetic.
Yasiin Bey, AKA Mos Def
Riz Ahmed: When I went to Hassan’s opening in Paris recently, Yasiin was there as well. I don’t know Yasiin personally, but I have met him three times.
The first time, I saw him at the Royal Court Theatre. He was in a play with Jeffrey Wright and smashed it. I was waiting for him to sign the play after, like “I’m 19 years old. I’m an actor. I’m in music as well. Can you please sign this for me?” I get it back and I’m like, “Smashed it!” I look at the copy of the book, and he hasn’t written my name, and he hasn’t written his name, he’s just written, “Brooklyn. One.” I’m like, “No one’s gonna believe this is Mos Def, man!”
The second time was five years later. I’m supporting him at The Warehouse Project – him, Dizzee Rascal, and me. I waited for Mos Def to come off-stage and I went over to approach him, and he gets swamped by women and friends, and I’m like, “Shit!” I wanted to give him my CD innit, my music. I had left all my CDs at home – all I had was my iPod, so I thought, “Let me just give him my actual iPod, there’s all my tunes on it.” I saw his tour DJ, and I just went, “Excuse me, can you please take this? I’m leaving it on the track, I just want him to hear my music.” I feel great, like, “Yeah, made it!” I stayed around that night. It was 5am and I saw his tour bus leave and I waved goodbye, like, “OK, safe.” I turn around, and there’s that DJ again. I ask him, “So, did you give him my iPod?” And he goes, "No, I forgot.” He gives it back to me and bounces.
The third time I met him was at a BAFTA afterparty. There’s an academic I know called Sohail Daulatzai who writes a lot on hip hop and Islam, and he goes, “Yeah, come link at the party, my friend’s DJing.” But he didn’t tell me who that friend was – and it was Mos Def. That night, finally, after ten years, I got to shake his hand and have a little chat with him.
He’s someone who blends different genres in his music, but also switches between lots of different artforms. He is an actor and a musician, obviously. He was really inspirational to me growing up in the 90s, seeing what he was doing on the Rawkus label, Black on Both Sides, Black Star – I felt like that was a voice in hip hop that I could really relate to, a person doing the things I wanted to do with my voice as a rapper when I would get the chance.
Riz Ahmed: My parents featured on the Swet Shop Boys album, and my mum featured on this album as well. It’s mainly about the advice, the prayers, and the blessing that your parents can give you. I think that growing up, there was always a voice in my head which was my parents’ voice. It doesn’t mean I always listened to it, but I’m grateful that it was there. Really, everything I do is for them. They sacrificed their life opportunities in coming here and giving us life opportunities.
Sometimes, growing up as a child of immigrants, your parents might say, “Listen, you gotta behave, otherwise they’ll kick us out.” I always thought that was such a stupid, fictional threat. “That can never happen, we’re from here.” I think what you’re seeing right now around the world is that the unthinkable is becoming possible. Suddenly, that voice of warning is haunting this album. There’s an interlude on this album, where my mum says, “Listen, son, I told you this relationship was never going to work out.” The influence comes out both in terms of them making my work possible, and also in that their warnings are turning true.
UK garage remixes
Riz Ahmed: I’m a Londoner, and, growing up, I saw the birth of the garage. I saw its evolution into grime and dubstep and the new age garage resurgence now. The reason I put down the UK garage ‘remixes’ is because UK garage had this lo-fi energy to it, particularly in its early days, where all the vocals were brought in from other genres. Something that I always want to do with my music is blend genres, taking from Bollywood and qawwali, hip hop and rap, drum & bass, garage and two-step, footwork – you have a real mix of BPMs and flavours and vibes in this album. What I loved about the UK garage is this ability to absorb other influences in such an amazing way. So, sampling American R&B vocals; the Brandy & Monica remix, the Kele Le Roc remix, even Sia’s “Little Man”; remixes of Bhangra tunes, all those amazing Bhangra garage acts in the late 90s and early 2000s that created a part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. It’s such a London sound, but it has also absorbed so many different cultures into it.